The International Students’ WeChat Dilemma
On August 6th, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order that bans all transactions related to WeChat or its mother company Tencent. Currently, WeChat maintains approximately 19 million daily active users in the United States, and 1.15 billion users all over the world. Not only do Chinese immigrants and Chinese international students use WeChat for communication and exchanging information, more and more Chinese-affiliated businesses, including supermarkets, restaurants, and hair salons, accept WeChat Pay. The proposed U.S. ban on WeChat has caused widespread anxiety among Chinese international students and immigrants who have family far across the Pacific Ocean, as there are few suitable alternatives to the app available over the short term.
Chinese students and immigrants depend exclusively on WeChat to communicate with their families and friends back in China, not because WeChat is the best communication app in the world, but because China has banned almost all foreign social media networks. Since 2010, when Google was forced to exit the Chinese market due to its unwillingness to censor its search results, Chinese authorities have started to restrict or completely block more and more foreign technological companies. Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Line, and Kakaotalk were no exceptions. WeChat soon became one of the few ways for people living in China and overseas Chinese to connect.
...thus leaving overseas Chinese nationals no choice but to teach their grandparents how to write emails or use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to cross the “Great Fire Wall” so they can acquire access to foreign social media networks.
There is, of course, hope for WeChat’s messaging function to be unaffected under the growing tension between the United States and China. The U.S. executive order specifies it will prohibit “any transaction that is related to WeChat by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, with Tencent Holdings Ltd.” It is still unclear what exactly the definition of “transaction” is, so the possibility of excluding the messaging and story-sharing functions remains. Fundamentally, those functions matter the most to WeChat users in the United States. However, if the ban prevents U.S. companies such as Apple and Microsoft from providing services to Tencent for its apps, then WeChat as we know it will cease to exist. Tencent’s other communication app QQ will also be blocked, thus leaving overseas Chinese nationals no choice but to teach their grandparents how to write emails or use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to cross the “Great Fire Wall” so they can acquire access to foreign social media networks. This is exceptionally difficult because older generations in China seldom use emails to communicate, and VPNs are increasingly restricted under the current Chinese administration.
For people who are seeking for a reliable alternative for WeChat, Line and Kakaotalk are both options. Both Line and Kakaotalk are similar to WeChat in terms of communication functions- they can both do voice and video calls apart from sending messages. What is different is that Line and Kakaotalk have the “read or not” function, while WeChat does not. That gives WeChat users more flexibility in their choice of when to reply messages. In addition, Kakaotalk has the function called “secret conversation” to ensure the privacy of special conversations. In terms of social functions, Line resembles WeChat more as users post photos and videos on their timelines. Kakaotalk, however, has a different app called “Kakaostoriy,” where users can share their life moments. For WeChat users, having communication and social functions separated from each other may be a less appealing trait. In terms of payment functions, usage of Tokyo-based Line Pay is relatively limited compared to WeChat. Kakao Pay, on the other hand, is widely accepted in Korea, on par with Apple Pay. Kakaotalk also operates banking, taxes calling, and deliveries, which almost covers every aspect of people’s daily life. It could easily replace WeChat in this respect, except it still banned from the Chinese market. Kakaotalks’ users, meanwhile, are largely Korean nationals and Korean Americans, so that the original WeChat users may find their friend circle greatly shrinking by switching to another platform.
Of course, President Trump is not simply looking to ban a single Chinese app. In early August, Trump signed another order to ban Tik-Tok and then urged ByteDance to sell its Tik-Tok operations to a U.S. company. The Chinese government has rejected Microsoft’s bid on Tik-Tok and called the U.S. sanctions “egregious and hegemonic behavior that will be denounced by all.”Global Times, an English newspaper under People’s Daily, called the forced sales of Tik-Tok “theft” and “open robbery.” The White House’s objective seems to be labeling every Chinese technological company as engaging in privacy-threatening operations and subsequently reduce their global competitiveness against Western competitors. For example, India banned Tik-Tok in June, and two months later, YouTube launched its own video-sharing app in the country called YouTube Shorts.
It is foreseeable that in the future more Chinese students will choose Australia, Canada, and Europe to be their primary destinations for studying abroad, or simply stay in China.
Besides undermining the prospects of Chinese companies in Western markets, these antagonistic actions also raise concerns about studying abroad in the United States among Chinese students. From 2008, the number of Chinese students to attend U.S. colleges and universities kept rising and reached 369,000 in 2019. After President Trump cut visas for Chinese students who major in science, engineering, and technology and expelled students with ties to China’s military and industrial schools, many Chinese students expressed disappointment towards the decision and began to identify hypocrisy in the West, as it is no longer protecting their rights to learn freely. A student from Qinghua University who majored in aerospace engineering languished in the visa process for over a year and lost the chance of attending a well-regarded PhD program in Cornell. He eventually stayed in China to apply for economic consulting jobs. It is foreseeable that in the future more Chinese students will choose Australia, Canada, and Europe to be their primary destinations for studying abroad, or simply stay in China.
The proposed WeChat ban only contributes to a growing anti-U.S. sentiment that will continue undermining people’s views of the United States and American soft power in China.
Lesley Lu is an intern with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program and a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
 Zhao Lijian (Foreign Ministry Spokesman) on Regular Press Conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of People’s Republic of China. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1805288.shtml
 Anonymous Interviewee from Xiamen, China
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